As England looks forward to cautiously loosening the restrictions from 12 April with hospitality, retail and personal care sectors open again for business, we are concerned that around one million university students are yet to be told when the government plans for them to return to in-person education.
Students and young people have suffered more than the wider adult population during the pandemic: mental health has declined, many are struggling with financial hardship from job losses, isolation and loneliness has increased, opportunities for in-person work experience and skills development have been limited, and this summer's graduates will enter an uncertain jobs market. Students have not been given the certainty that other groups have.
With student and young people's wellbeing at risk, universities are keen to ensure that students can experience the positive learning and wellbeing benefits of returning to Covid-safe campuses for the summer term.
The government needs to make and communicate its decision – and quickly – giving universities time and flexibility to respond in a way that best supports student and staff health and wellbeing.
Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, President, Universities UK
Rosie Tressler OBE, Chief Executive Officer, Student Minds
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President for Higher Education, National Union of Students
Universities UK (UUK) is the collective voice of 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its mission is to create the conditions for UK universities to be the best in the world; maximising their positive impact locally, nationally and globally. Universities UK acts on behalf of universities, represented by their heads of institution.
The text of the full letter to the Prime Minister is available on the Universities UK website.
UUK estimates that as many as 50% of the 2.1 million higher education students in England are still being taught fully online, either in their normal term-time accommodation or at home, with no access to university-provided in-person learning, activities, or support.
Universities have been working hard to prepare for the summer term for all students with plans including blended teaching and learning, opportunities to use library, computing and studio spaces, on-campus sport, graduate support bootcamps, and creative use of outdoor space – in accordance with government guidance – to encourage group work and social interaction.
Term dates will vary, and so individual students should wait to hear more from their university, but UUK’s work looking at plans for the summer term suggests that the majority of universities have plans for programmes, activities and extended opening of some facilities which will be available and of benefit to students even if they are unable to return until May. For this reason, we need government to give a clearer indication about plans for the return of all students in the summer term.
Recent data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that almost two-thirds of students have experienced a decline in their mental health this academic year, and that students' life satisfaction during the pandemic remains far below the national adult average. Universities UK has called for targeted government support for student mental health.
Previous data published by the ONS shows that infection rates of higher education teaching professionals are low compared to people working in other education settings. This follows prior research which revealed there is minimal evidence of Covid-19 transmission in face-to-face learning environments at universities, such as classrooms.
A recent Sutton Trust report on Covid-19 and the university experience showed that participation in extra-curricular activities this academic year is substantially down on normal. 39% of students reported taking part in student societies or sport in the autumn term, and this has fallen further since Christmas to just 30%. Almost half (47%) of students reported taking part in no wider enrichment activities at all this term, and they are also less likely to have taken part in work experience, paid work, or study abroad opportunities.
Universities have prepared a variety of additional activities designed to support final year undergraduates and postgraduate taught students who are graduating this year, including: